What These Famous Characters Would Have Been Like With Different Actors
When you think of a famous movie character, you’re not really thinking about the character — you’re thinking about the actor playing them. With books, you create an image of a character in your mind’s eye, but with a movie, you’re associating the character with that particular actor’s looks, voice, and mannerisms. This is true even when a character jumps from page to screen. When you picture James Bond, you’re not picturing Ian Fleming’s description of a man with a vertical scar on his right cheek, a “comma” of hair that falls on his forehead, and a “cruel” mouth. You’re thinking of Sean Connery.
So it’s always shocking when we find out certain movie characters were almost played by different actors. When we discover what could’ve been, we’re left scratching our heads, wondering which sector of the multiverse this actor played that character. It’s wild. It wouldn’t just change the character — it’d change the actor’s career, the movie itself, and its place in popular culture. Sure, some of these may just be rumor and innuendo, as casting decisions happen behind closed doors, but it’s still fun to speculate: What would these famous characters have been like with different actors?
Will Smith – Neo
Keanu Reeves may have been “The One,” but he wasn’t the first choice to play Neo in the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking “The Matrix.” The part was originally meant for the biggest movie star in the world, Will Smith. Smith’s explanation for why he turned down “The Matrix” makes sense. Basically, the Wachowskis’ had only made one movie by that point, the low-budget financial bomb “Bound,” and their alleged description of the film’s genre-defining special effects was less than compelling. We still can’t explain why Will Smith opted to do “Wild Wild West” instead, but that’s for another article. All we can say is “The Matrix” would’ve been very different — and not for the better.
By that point, Smith had established himself as an action star who cracked jokes, a potent combination in popcorn movies like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” but it would’ve ruined a trippy sci-fi movie like “The Matrix.” Reeves’ otherworldly disaffection was critical to playing this cyberpunk Christ-like figure. Smith’s wise-cracking schtick would’ve played like winking at the audience and turned high-concept sci-fi into campy schlock. Also, we can’t imagine what the inevitable “Fresh Prince” hip-hop tie-in song would’ve been. If you thought “Wild Wild West” (a “Will Smith movie” if there ever was one) was a bomb, “The Matrix” would’ve been thermonuclear. While Smith wasn’t ready for Neo at the time, he would’ve been a good fit circa “I Am Legend.”
Nicolas Cage – Aragorn
Nicolas Cage’s raison d’etre is playing unconventional characters. Or rather playing conventional characters unconventionally. So the idea of the master of manic energy playing Aragorn — the lead human protagonist in the classic fantasy epic “The Lord of the Rings” and the cultural standard for the strong, stoic hero — sounds wrong. Sure, Cage can play parts straight … more or less … including conventional action-adventure heroes in “The Rock,” “Con Air,” and the “National Treasure” movies. But as great as he is in those movies, he’s still playing Nicolas Cage. Which is awesome in most circumstances — not in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Though Stuart Townsend was actually hired, then fired, by Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen was perfect for the part because he wasn’t playing Aragorn; he was Aragorn. You weren’t watching Mortensen, you were watching Strider, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, Isildur’s Heir, and the True King of Gondor. Mortensen did an incredible job, to be sure, but he was helped out by the fact he was a virtual unknown at the time. Mortensen could play Aragorn without carrying the movie star baggage that Cage, a certified A-lister, would’ve had. “The Lord of the Rings” was an ensemble, and having a movie star at the center wouldn’t have worked. Cage doesn’t regret turning down the iconic part, as the lengthy New Zealand shoot would’ve kept him from his family.
Tom Selleck – Indiana Jones
Perhaps the most famous “what if?” movie character casting of all time is Tom Selleck playing Indiana Jones. While Steven Spielberg was reportedly always high on Harrison Ford donning the bullwhip and fedora, Jones’ creator and producer (and thus, Spielberg’s “boss”), George Lucas, didn’t want Ford to “become my Bobby De Niro,” a reference to Martin Scorsese’s multi-film collaboration with Robert De Niro. Thus, Tom Selleck was offered the part, but he had to turn it down due to his commitments on TV’s “Magnum P.I.”
We don’t have to speculate what Tom Selleck would’ve been like as Indiana Jones: We have video footage. Tom Selleck’s screentest with Karen Allen, who would play Jones’ love interest, Marion Ravenwood, shows just how far along he was. And his performance is … okay. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was meant to be a throwback to the 1940s serials from Lucas’ youth, and Selleck’s performance rings true. However, Ford’s everyman quality and movie star gravitas transcended Indy’s inspiration to become truly iconic. With Selleck wearing the leather jacket, we imagine “Raiders” would’ve made money and maybe had a few sequels. With Ford, Indiana Jones became one of the greatest cinematic heroes of all time.
Christopher Walken and Al Pacino – Han Solo
“Star Wars” is largely credited with ending the New Hollywood heyday of the 1970s and ushering in the blockbuster era we still live in today. However, it’s important to remember the movie was released in 1977, right in the middle of the New Hollywood movement. This was when the biggest names weren’t tall, traditional, square-jawed leading men but wiry New York actors who would’ve been supporting players in any other era. In this galaxy far, far away (1970s Hollywood), two of these thespians almost nabbed the role of space swashbuckler Han Solo, a part made legendary by Harrison Ford but one that both Christopher Walken and Al Pacino turned down.
Walken admits he “would have been terrible” and we agree, as his svelte, snake-like charm would be more suited to a “Star Wars” villain than the Millennium Falcon’s daring captain. Thankfully, Walken walked. Pacino says he turned down the part because he didn’t understand the script, and he was only offered the role because after “The Godfather,” he was “offered everything,” and “they didn’t care if I was right or wrong for the role.” We can say definitively, Pacino would’ve been very wrong for Han Solo. Pacino as Solo might’ve been a career-killer, and it certainly would’ve been a franchise killer, as Pacino pursuing Princess Leia would’ve played more predatory than romantic. That said, we would’ve loved to see Scarface trade barbs with Chewbacca. “Say hello to my furry friend!”
Molly Ringwald – Vivian Ward
Molly Ringwald was “Pretty in Pink,” but she was almost “Pretty Woman” too. Or at least, she was considered. According to a Reddit AMA, Molly Ringwald revealed she could’ve gone from musing John Hughes to schmoozing with Richard Gere, writing, “I think I saw an early draft [of ‘Pretty Woman’], and it was called ‘$3,000.’ I don’t specifically remember turning it down.” She noted the “script was okay” but obviously opted not to do it. And the movie world is better for it.
The rags-to-riches, Cinderella sex worker story works because Julia Roberts was just a few steps above an unknown, having only starred in supporting parts in “Mystic Pizza” and “Steel Magnolias” by that point. Molly Ringwald was a big star, having been a charter member of Hughes’ “Brat Pack” throughout the 1980s. Besides, seeing a former teen starlet playing a sex worker working the streets would’ve been a bit … icky. “Pretty Woman” would’ve done nothing for Ringwald’s career, but it made Roberts’. As Ringwald herself admitted, “Julia Roberts is what makes that movie. It was her part. Every actor hopes for a part that lets them shine like that.”
Jason Patric – William Wallace
In a career filled with ups and downs, “Braveheart” is undeniably one of Mel Gibson’s masterpieces. While Gibson nabbed Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, it’s his lead performance as the blue-faced, long-haired, rebellious Scotsman William Wallace that’s stood the test of time (a performance for which he was inexplicably not nominated for an Oscar). Seriously, imagine any other actor shouting “freedom!” with as much fury and passion, and it just doesn’t ring true. And yet, while Gibson was always attached to direct, the part was originally meant for … Jason Patric?
In an interview with Vulture, Patric claims that Gibson at first wanted him to take up the broadsword. Why? Rumor has it that Gibson originally felt that at around 40 years old, he was past his prime to play the part, as William Wallace is believed to have died at 35. So instead, he wanted Patric, an up-and-comer who still hadn’t made primetime as a movie star. Alas, Paramount played hardball and told Gibson they wouldn’t finance his film unless he wore the kilt. It was for the best. Nothing against Patric, but he’s just not a movie star. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he is. While Patric would’ve given a solid, thoughtful performance, “Braveheart” would’ve been largely forgotten without Gibson’s gravitas.
Harrison Ford – Dr. Alan Grant and Oskar Schindler
Steven Spielberg had a great 1993, directing the year’s highest-grossing movie, “Jurassic Park,” as well as the Oscar winner for Best Picture, “Schindler’s List.” But Spielberg almost took his old Indiana Jones buddy along for the ride — Harrison Ford. While promoting “Raiders” 30th anniversary (via /film), Ford teased Spielberg about only hiring him for Indiana Jones movies. Spielberg shot back, setting the record straight by saying Ford was originally offered Dr. Alan Grant. Ford would’ve been fine, but in the early 1990s, he was at the height of his movie stardom, and the dinos were the draw in “Jurassic Park.” Instead he starred in a movie that did need his star power, “The Fugitive.”
Ironically, it was Ford’s star power that kept him away from Oskar Schindler. While details are sketchy (it could just be Hollywood rumor), Ford was originally offered the title role, but he felt it should go to an unknown, as his movie stardom would distract from the message. Perhaps. While Ford is a better actor than people give him credit for, he’s 100% red, white, and blue American. Ford trying to do a German accent for 3+ hours (remember his accent in “Last Crusade?”) would’ve been a stretch. It might’ve been a “Hunt for Red October” situation where they just had everyone speaking in their normal accents, which would’ve damaged the message.
Michelle Pfeiffer – Clarice Starling
“The Silence of the Lambs” has gone down in cinematic history largely because of Anthony Hopkins’ scene-chewing (and, y’know, people-chewing) as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But as iconic as Hopkins is, “The Silence of the Lambs” belongs to Jodie Foster. As neophyte FBI trainee Clarice Starling, Foster deftly balances strength with vulnerability, giving both an “actor’s actor” performance and a movie star performance. It’s a brilliant piece of work, one that rightly won Foster her second Oscar, but the part almost went to another talented actor and charismatic movie star: Michelle Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer had stolen the show in Jonathan Demme’s comedy “Married to the Mob,” and he wanted his star back for his foray into horror. However, Pfeiffer turned it down because she found the film too “evil,” in particular the ending (where it’s heavily implied Lecter is going to consume his psychiatrist), telling The New Yorker that, “I didn’t want to put that out into the world.” While we disagree with her take on the film, she’s right in that she was wrong for the role. Pfeiffer is best as the icy blonde (she would’ve been great in an Alfred Hitchcock movie) who’s rarely in over her head. Foster’s Starling was always in over her head but rose above, making her a great underdog hero. That said, had they gone with a gender-swap, Pfeiffer might’ve made a great Lecter.
Liam Neeson and Cary Grant – James Bond
Pretty much every actor from across the pond for the past 60 years has been considered for James Bond. While we could write an entire list just on actors who were considered for Bond, we’re going to consider two of the most interesting.
Before Pierce Brosnan donned the tux, fellow Irishman Liam Neeson talked with Bond producer Barbara Broccoli about starring in (presumably) “GoldenEye.” Neeson told James Corden on “The Late, Late Show” that he turned down the part because his then-girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife, Natasha Richardson, said she wouldn’t marry him if he accepted the part. Neeson’s action hero turn in “Taken” was still a few decades away, and it worked because of Neeson’s everyman quality. James Bond is most definitely not an everyman, so Neeson as Bond wouldn’t have worked.
More interesting is the actor who supposedly almost played Bond before Sean Connery — Cary Grant. Legend has it the icon from Hollywood’s golden era was offered the part in “Dr. No,” but he wanted too much money and a one-film contract, as the then 58 year-old had no desire for a multi-film franchise (he retired in 1966). Given he pretty much played proto-Bond in Hitchcock thrillers “Notorious” and “To Catch A Thief,” Grant would’ve been great as 007 … but not in 1962. You don’t launch a franchise with the rugged veteran, so while “Dr. No” would’ve been a good movie with Grant, the Bond franchise wouldn’t have become iconic without Sean Connery.
Sandra Bullock – Neo
Keanu Reeves had already established himself as an A-list action star by 1999, but the role of Neo in “The Matrix” almost went to his “Speed” co-star, Sandra Bullock. According to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Warner Brothers insisted on a star to headline the mind-bending sci-fi film, as insurance against the outlandish plot and the fact the film’s creators, the Wachowskis, only had one film to their name, 1996’s bomb “Bound.” When A-listers like Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt (presumably) turned it down or were at least considered, the producers contemplated a gender swap and making Neo a lady.
We can get there but not with Sandra Bullock. She’s better as the girl next door, not the hacker next door, as proven by her unsuccessful film “The Net.” Granted, she wasn’t helped at all by that film’s script, but she still wasn’t convincing in the part. Besides the hacker factor, there’s also the fact that “The Matrix” is really violent. Watching America’s Sweetheart blow people away with automatic weapons sounds more like a SNL skit than a movie, which is why we also wouldn’t have liked her as Trinity, which she was also offered.
Jack Nicholson – Michael Corleone
Al Pacino was an unknown when he was cast in his career-making (and career-defining) role, Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” But Francis Ford Coppola originally offered the part to Jack Nicholson, a much bigger star in the early 1970s. It was an offer Nicholson could (and did) refuse. According to a BBC interview in the early 1980s, Nicholson turned down the part because he wanted to do “The Last Detail” and “Chinatown” instead. The Irish-American actor also felt Michael Corleone should be played by an Italian.
It was a good call, as a world without Nicholson in “Chinatown” or Pacino in “The Godfather” is not one we’d want to live in. Still, it’s fun to speculate. Pacino’s Michael was a naif thrown into a situation bigger than himself, rising to the occasion by sinking into the gutter and falling into evil. It’s a brilliant performance, aided by Pacino’s newness to the screen and the fact he seemed so young. Nicholson, only three years older than Pacino, has always seemed older than his years, and he’s naturally much more sinister than Pacino. “The Godfather” charts Michael’s descent into darkness, but as good as Nicholson is, he would’ve had nowhere to go as an actor or at least it wouldn’t have been as natural. Now Nicholson as family attorney Tom Hagen or older brother Sonny? We could get there.
Leonardo DiCaprio – Anakin Skywalker
Leonardo DiCaprio has been in high demand since before he could drive, but two of the biggest roles he declined came after his career changed with 1997’s “Titanic.” On the “The Howard Stern Show,” James Cameron revealed he wanted DiCaprio to star as Peter Parker in an absolutely wild version of “Spider-Man.” Studio bigwigs also wanted the actor to lead the 2002 Sam Raimi blockbuster, a part that went to DiCaprio’s buddy, Tobey Maguire. While “Spider-Man” was destined to be a big hit, DiCaprio might’ve hurt the film’s box office prospects. By 2002, the culture had gotten “Leo OD’d” after his insane overexposure from “Titanic.” Rooting for him as an underdog geek who never gets the girl wouldn’t have been believable.
More interesting is the other huge part DiCaprio turned down, Anakin Skywalker in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels. DiCaprio as Darth would’ve been great (or at least as great as anything could be in Lucas’ lukewarm trilogy) as he could’ve conveyed the pathos of Skywalker’s descent into the Dark Side. Well, maybe. Leo wasn’t the actor in 2002 that he is today, and a big reason why Leo leveled up is because he turned down Skywalker to star in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” While that decision saved DiCaprio’s career, he couldn’t have saved the “Star Wars” prequels from mediocrity. Had DiCaprio played Anakin, his career would have sunk like the Titanic.